How many times have you heard an announcer say something like this: "He may be small, but he plays with a lot of heart" or "People told him he was too small to play in the big leagues, but he is out here proving them wrong."
If you follow professional sports, my guess is that you have heard the previous statements a fair amount. And while I enjoy watching players like New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead or former Anaheim Angels and St. Louis Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein as much as the next person, I am tired of hearing about how no one believed they could make it as professional athletes.
One thing I have learned from watching sports is that pro-athletes come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but they have one thing in common: talent. You do not hit a 95 M.P.h. fastball without incredible hand-eye coordination, and you do not break a 20-yard run in the NFL without extraordinary quickness, vision and cutting ability. Let's look at Danny Woodhead as an example.
First, some background on the 5'8", 200-pound Woodhead. He grew up in North Platte, Neb., where he set the state record for career rushing yards. This was problem number one, since few major colleges scout Nebraska very heavily. He then enrolled at Division II Chadron State College, where he rushed for 7,962 yards and 101 touchdowns the former an NCAA all-divisions record. His 2,756 rushing yards in 2006 were also an all-divisions record.
Woodhead did not get invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but at the University of Nebraska's pro day, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 to 4.38 seconds, an elite time for an NFL prospect. He was promptly undrafted in 2008. From there, he spent parts of three seasons with the New York Jets before latching on to the Patriots in 2010 and becoming their main pass-catching threat out of the backfield, scoring a touchdown in last year's Super Bowl.
My point is that even before he entered the NFL, Woodhead was a complete freak in terms of the numbers he put up. The competition in Division II is weaker than Division I, but if Woodhead was a few inches taller, he probably would have received a lot more attention in the draft. But because Woodhead's talents do not directly match up with the platonic ideal of an NFL running back about 5'11" and (controversial truth alert) African-American Woodhead has gone through his career labeled less talented than his peers, only able to succeed through outworking them every step of the way.
The truth is that players who do not fit the traditional mold of a professional athlete, like Woodhead and Eckstein, do not work significantly harder than their peers. This is not a knock on Woodhead or Eckstein's work ethic, but merely a statement of fact save for rare cases, you do not become a professional athlete without working incredibly hard.
The problem is that the media and the American public project certain characteristics onto these players based on their physical appearances, without taking into account the entirety of their skill set. Woodhead may be short, but he is extremely quick, sure-handed and possesses the vision of an NFL running back. He has certainly worked to refine these skills, but there can be no argument that Woodhead is more naturally talented than 99 percent of Americans.
The same goes for Eckstein, a former World Series MVP discounted for standing just 5'6" and choking up on the bat at the plate, even though he was an All-American at the University of Florida. He played 10 seasons in the big leagues and made two All-Star teams, and he accomplished this not through a superhuman work ethic, but as a great contact hitter who rarely struck out.
Talent comes in many forms, and while some people are blessed with a Herculean physical form, such as Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, others with normal bodies can still make it to the pros with less obvious natural gifts, such as a lightning-fast reaction time or superior hand-eye coordination.
So by all means, announcers, tell me how an athlete such as Woodhead uses his unique skill set to succeed in the NFL. But please don't tell me how he is far less talented than everyone else. I will not believe it. And neither should you.